Remembering NBA Legend and Activist Bill Russell

rachel robinson and bill russell
NBA legend Bill Russell and JRF Founder Rachel Robinson share a laugh during a Foundation golf outing.

The Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) mourns the loss of NBA legend and civil rights activist, Bill Russell. Russell was a longstanding JRF supporter, sharing his time and treasure to help advance our mission—as he often did on behalf of causes that promoted the ideals of equality and social justice. We will miss him and be forever grateful to him.

The mutual admiration between Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson demonstrated the power of inspiration. In 1961, when a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve African Americans, Russell led the Celtics in a boycott of an NBA exhibition game there, after which Jackie wrote to the leader of Boston’s basketball dynasty, stating, “It is gratifying to know that our athletes have the pride that you fellows do. Your actions aid considerably in our fight for equal opportunity.”

In 2013, Russell shared, “One of my high school teammates was the first black manager in baseball, Frankie Robinson. We were both determined to take what Jackie laid out for us, to proceed with it. One of the greatest honors I ever had was to be at [Jackie’s] funeral because I had so much respect and regard for him.” At the request of Rachel Robinson, who recalled that Bill Russell was her husband’s favorite athlete, Russell served as a pallbearer when Jackie was laid to rest in 1972.

The 11-time NBA champion’s legacy underscores Black athletes’ undeniable right to use their voices to effect positive social change. We will miss Bill’s friendship and heartwarming laugh, while we cherish his indelible contributions to the fight for equality and brilliant achievements on the court. We extend our deepest sympathy to Bill’s family and close friends.